CNN's moderators decided to focus Tuesday night's Democratic presidential debate on meta questions about electability, rather than on how the candidates would actually govern as president, so we did not hear much about policy except when the candidates brought it up on their own.
And, by and large, other than a little debate on Syria, they did not bring up foreign policy. That's not shocking; with Syria in the news, no Democrat really wants to run on President Obama's record there, nor do the candidates generally have trailblazing alternatives on it. (Neither do Republicans, whose ideas are often just status quo dressed up with hawkish rhetoric, but at least they can bash Obama.)
One of these people could end up running the most powerful military and foreign policy apparatus on Earth, so it would've been nice to get some insights on how they'd do that. And there are a few foreign policy issues that are especially important for Democrats to figure out, after eight years of a Democratic presidency, and on which the candidates have consequential disagreements. Here, then, are six questions I really wish CNN had asked, and why they matter.
1) Obama is talking about keeping troops in Afghanistan, where we've been for 14 years. Would you continue that?
President Obama came into office promising to withdraw us from Afghanistan, and he's gotten us most of the way there, but a lot of troops remain, and he's reportedly now considering leaving them there. With the Taliban resurgent and even ISIS showing up there, some in the administration apparently believe we can't afford to leave.
It's important to know whether the possible next president wants to maintain the US military force, and especially with the more hawkish Hillary Clinton in the race there would likely be substantive and revealing policy differences. As analyst Doug Ollivant told the New York Times, the policy question here is, "Are we willing to spend — the numbers are fuzzy — but somewhere between $10 and $20 billion per year in perpetuity for the privilege of Afghanistan not totally collapsing?"
2) Repeated Israel-Palestine peace talks have failed, and there's rapidly worsening violence in Jerusalem. What would you do differently to address the Israel-Palestine conflict?
This is a legitimately difficult and urgent issue, and it's also an area of significant and underexplored disagreement among the candidates.
Clinton is significantly to her party's right on Israel, and has courted pro-Israel donors. Her statement this week on Jerusalem's violence, tellingly, did not even mention Palestinians. She is not exactly best friends with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but she is generally more sympathetic to Israeli positions in the conflict.
Bernie Sanders, despite his otherwise lefty platform and image, is pro-Israel himself, though he doesn't much like to discuss the issue. Both Clinton and Sanders have thus been difficult to pin down on how they'd handle Israel-Palestine — Clinton because her pitch to pro-Israel donors is different from her pitch to Democratic primary voters, Sanders because his base doesn't like his position on it. Maybe they would maintain Obama's policies and maybe not — we should try to find out!
Meanwhile, Lincoln Chafee is more to his party's left on the issue; he's on the advisory council to the liberal pro-Israel group J Street. He is not going to be president, but having him voice his perspective alongside Clinton and Sanders would help show the policy spectrum on Israel-Palestine and highlight where Clinton and Sanders do and do not stand.
3) Was the American-led 2011 intervention in Libya a mistake? What did we learn from it about American use of force in the Middle East?
This came up briefly in the debate when Clinton defended the intervention, which she played a role in shaping, as a successful policy. That is certainly a debatable proposition, and while Jim Webb tried to challenge it, he stumbled, and the issue mostly faded away.
Clinton should be pressed on this, but the other candidates should also be pressed on what they would do differently and why. The Libya intervention was an important moment for US foreign policy. The lessons for American use of force, and for what the US can and can't do in the Middle East, are important in shaping how we approach Syria and Iraq and surely will come up elsewhere.
Did the intervention really avert an even worse outcome, as Clinton contends? Should the US have not done it, or should it have followed the airstrikes with even more involvement to stabilize post-conflict Libya? What's the lesson for Syria's war? For the use and limits of American power? It would be healthy for the Democratic Party to hash these out.
4) Millions of refugees are languishing in camps, and many are suffering or even dying on the journey to and across Europe, in the worst refugee crisis since World War II. What specific actions would America take under your leadership to address this?
There's been a lot of high-flying, feel-good, save-the-children rhetoric among Democrats about the refugee crisis. And feel-good rhetoric makes for great viral Facebook content, but it does not do much for refugees.
Rather than candidates being allowed to coast on vague promises, they should be pinned down on specific actions and commitments: US funding for underfunded camps in Turkey and Lebanon and Jordan, raising the woefully insufficient US refugee quotas, pressure on European leaders to make specific changes (and how they'd get them), and how the US could help refugees do what many have expressed a desire to do, which is to one day return home.
5) What should America's goals be for Syria?
Safe bet: By the time the next president takes office, Syria's war will still be a disaster, and the US will still be involved in bombing ISIS there.
Candidates like to talk about how America needs to stand up for freedom and oppose Russian bullying and other vague platitudes, but it is much harder to articulate specific objectives. It's fine to say, "Assad should go" or "Putin must be confronted," but those are opinions, not policy goals.
That's because articulating specific objectives means making a case that you can actually achieve those, and also because it forces candidates to decide what they're not going to include. The latter is in many ways the harder and more important distinction — and the one candidates don't like to discuss.
6) Russia is still fomenting the war in eastern Ukraine, still running provocative military flight over our NATO allies in Europe, and even doing some nuclear saber rattling. How would you respond to Russian aggression in Europe?
This is an important and difficult question in itself, and also a good way to understand how candidates think about major foreign policy challenges.
Do you emphasize the need for multilateralism and alliance building with European allies, or emphasize unilateral American action against Russia? Do you go for confrontation against Moscow, or seek compromise and diplomacy? Is the military your preferred tool here, or is it economic power such as sanctions, or is it diplomatic power? Do you play up Russia's threat to the global order as urgent and immediate, or play it down as self-defeating and overhyped? Do you worry more about civilian casualties in eastern Ukraine or about Kiev's geopolitical predisposition toward the EU?
These are all good ways to get into not just how the candidates see Russia and Vladimir Putin but how they think about America's role in the world, and its ability and responsibility (or lack thereof) to shape global events. That includes the global events we can't currently foresee a year-plus before the next president takes office, and it's that, more than any specific policy problem, that is perhaps most important.